Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Moses in the Qur'an

The following is a brief excerpt from my book Reading the Qur'an in English (Cape Breton University Press, 2009). People who are unfamiliar with Islam and the Qur'an are often surprised to learn that Moses figures far more prominently than any other individual, aside from Muhammad, in Islam's holy book.
Even though the name of Moses appears so many times in the Qur'an, it is interesting to note that his name does not appear at all in surahs 41 through 114. Remembering that the textual order of the Qur'an is virtually the reverse order in which the surahs were revealed, this suggests that the story of Moses only becomes important once the basic message of the Qur'an is known. There is a logical explanation for this. The early surahs tend to focus on the fundamental tenets of the Oneness of God and the Day of Judgment. By contrast, the content of the later surahs is much more complex and multifaceted, often containing responses to both theoretical and practical questions about Islam, some of which are likely to have arisen through dialogue with the Jews. (pp. 82-83)
My discussion of Moses compares the way that he is depicted in the Torah, the New Testament and the Qur'an, with an emphasis on surahs 26 (The Poets), 27 (The Ants), and 28 (The Story).

Monday, August 4, 2014

Capital or Infinite Jest

In theory, August is a time for vacation - a break from teaching, research, committee work, and all the other things that come with the academic life. Of course, that doesn't mean that it's a break from reading. This summer I wanted to read a big book. So, I set my sights on David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. I started reading this book years ago, but gave up after fifty or sixty page, promising myself that I'd return to it some day. However, a couple of months ago, I got a copy of Thomas Picketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century, obviously not a novel, but definitely a big book. Because this is vacation time, I should probably be reading fiction, but this is a difficult choice.

Infinite Jest was selected by Time magazine in 2005 as one of the top 100 works of English-language fiction published since 1923. David Foster Wallace hanged himself in 2008, at age 46. He suffered from depression. The novel is set in the near future, with most of the action taking place at a tennis academy and a substance-abuse recovery facility. The themes range from addiction to advertising, and much more.
Capital has taken the world by storm, turning French economist Thomas Picketty into an international celebrity and bringing more revenue into Harvard University Press than they could ever imagine. In what is clearly an homage to Karl Marx, Picketty offers a new take on taxation and income inequality, based on an extensive historical analysis and a good deal of number crunching.
Beyond sheer length, both books are well researched, containing copious end notes, and they both offer timely critiques of the human condition.  
So, here's what I've decided. I'm going to start reading both, about fifty pages at a time, and see which one manages to hold my interest through to completion.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Just Released

My new book, Governance and Social Leadership, has just been released by Cape Breton University Press. In it, I explore the nature of governance and leadership, the relationship between the two, and the need to take a more genuinely social approach to building capacity to act in organizations of all kinds.

The book is available in print format (ISBN 9781897009703), from Amazon and other booksellers, and as an e-book for Kindle readers, Kobo readers, and from Apple. Please pick up a copy for yourself and for a friend. I would appreciate receiving any comments you may have on the book, and please take the opportunity to post a review of the book on your blog, or in some other venue.  

Friday, January 10, 2014

Winter's Food Supply

During his initial years establishing the cod fishery in the Bay of Chaleur, Charles Robin (1743-1824) kept a journal in which he recorded his observations and reflections on daily life. Normally, these entrepreneurial Englishmen returned to Jersey for the winter, but because the company had already established a permanent fishing station in Cape Breton at Arichat, a few of the men, including Charles, stayed for the winter and did whatever work they could. For the most part this meant chopping wood and carrying out routine maintenance. In fact, as the journal entries show, most of their energy was expended in staying alive. Of course, that meant protecting whatever food they had grown or caught before winter arrived from the threats of the weather and the various predators and vermin that were equally occupied with trying to stay alive. As this entry from December 19, 1768 illustrates, even when an adequate food supply has been gathered and stored, the struggle to maintain it can be fierce:
This evening put some poison mixed with vinegar and molasses, in the store, fish house, underground cellar, and our house, having secured everything in the best manner we could. I can no longer have the patience to see the rats destroying everything. We found five drowned in the pickle of the pork barrel, near a dozen starved in a hogshead where we had some greens which they destroyed in spite of us, a keg of oil eaten through and part of the oil gone, a moose skin entirely eaten up. In our cellar they destroy what little potatoes and turnips we have although we cover well the barrels. They cut holes through every night and in the fish house they are tearing the fish in pieces.  
As winter progressed, and weather permitted, the men moved around among the small communities that had been established in the Canso area, in part for companionship, but more importantly to trade for foodstuffs that were either running out, or completely exhausted. Everywhere they went, they encountered others facing the same challenges, with some having reached an extreme state of desperation. The following journal entry from April 29, 1769 demonstrates the extent of the toll that winter had taken: 
I went on board the New England vessels, to try to get some bread, but they could not spare me any, having given already some to two or three families at Canso, who have wintered at Crow Harbour in Chedabouctou, but were obliged to leave that place about six weeks ago for want of provisions after having eaten all their dogs and cats - they had a young mulatto girl, whom they were going to kill had not a boat come to their assistance. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Phylogenetics and Folktales

Recently, I came across an article titled "The Phylogeny of Little Red Riding Hood." At first, I was amused by the fact that the title could be read to suggest that someone had established the genetic origins of Little Red Riding Hood, as if she were a real person. Of course, what the article was really about is the origins in oral tradition of the tale that we have come to know, primarily through the efforts of Charles Perrault, as Little Red Riding Hood.

I have always loved folktales, but I have also always been dismayed by the way in which Disney, Looney Tunes, and children's literature more generally have sanitized and prettified these tales to remove the deeper threat to existence they all possess and leave them with a sticky sweet happily-ever-after patina. Most folktales were never designed for children, except perhaps to frighten them into obedience. Rather, folktales were designed to pass down the collected wisdom and experience of communities, as a means of preserving social order and helping people to cope with the harsh realities of daily life. And, their origins are much richer and older than we often imagine.

In contrast to the historical and geographic methods that have traditionally been used to establish the origins of folktales, phylogenetic analysis uses statistical techniques to study the evolutionary relationships among groups of objects, taking into account a much larger set of variables, and analyzing a much more complex set of relationships. Without going too deeply into the mathematical details, the article's author used cladistic analysis, Bayesian analysis, and NeighbourNet graphing to establish relationships among 58 variants on the story from around the world. Simply stated, the objective was to establish the model that best fit the data.  

It turns out that the tale we now know as Little Red Riding Hood is a hybrid constructed out of three major strains, with a number of minor variations. One strain identified with the story of The Wolf and the Kids has its origins in Africa. A second strain associated with the story of Tiger Grandmother comes from East Asia. The third strain, linking Little Red Riding Hood, Catterinella, and The Story of Grandmother, is associated with the Middle East and Europe. The East Asian strain turns out to be the most recent, with the Middle Eastern and European strain being the best candidate for the oldest set of variants. 

The research suggests that the earliest forms of this story are about 2000 years old. Further, despite what has happened to the tale at the hands of modern interpreters, it appears that if you want to avoid getting eaten by a wolf, a tiger, or your grandmother, just ask permission to go to the toilet!

The article by Jamshid Tehrani is available to download from the open access journal PloS One, from the Public Library of Science.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Publicity, Faith, Reza, and Me

Reza Aslan's new book on the historical Jesus, Zealot (Random House, 2013), is climbing the bestseller charts and provoking a bounty of positive and negative reviews. In what is rapidly becoming a viral video clip, Aslan is interviewed by Lauren Green on Fox News. If you haven't seen it, watch it. Green shows no interest in listening to anything Aslan has to say. Her singular mission appears to be dismissing the book on the basis that Aslan's faith compromises his objectivity.

I have written two books on the Qur'an: Reading the Qur'an in English (Cape Breton University Press, 2009) and Women, War & Hypocrites (Cape Breton University Press, 2010). While neither of my books has enjoyed even a small fraction of the sales of Zealot or Aslan's previous book, No God but God (Random House, 2006, 2011), there are similarities with respect to the responses we receive. The most common question I get about my books from both Muslims and non-Muslims is, "Are you Muslim?" When I respond by asking why that would matter, some non-Muslims give me a puzzled look and say something like, "If you're not Muslim, why would you bother?" It distresses me to think that this is a thinly-veiled articulation of the opinion that I'm crazy to waste my time on what they believe to be a nonsensical and dangerous superstition. Similarly, some Muslims openly state that if I am not Muslim, then my opinion either does not matter, or I must be attacking their faith. As with Aslan's treatment on Fox, too often, the merits of the book, whatever those may be, are viewed as secondary, or irrelevant, compared to the merits of the man.

Like Aslan, I was raised a Christian, I spent several years at university studying Christianity, and I have a PhD in sociology. One big difference comes with respect to our declarations of faith. I taught introductory courses on the religious traditions of the East and West, as well as more advanced courses on sacred texts, including a course on the Qur'an. In all of these classes I did my best to be objective about the subject matter and neutral with respect to my own religious views. Students always wanted to know what religion I followed, and I continually refused to answer. Aslan is openly Muslim, and I am openly noncommittal.

In the Fox interview, Aslan continually tries to make the point that he is an academic, and that writing books such as Zealot is his job. Sociologists studying criminals do not have to be criminals. Why should a sociologist writing about Christianity or Islam have to be a Christian or a Muslim? Big subject for another day, perhaps, but there is no question that scholars of religion are often subjected to a particularly mean-spirited version of anti-intellectualism.

Of course, one truism that gets reinforced by Aslan's appearance on Fox is that there is no such thing as bad publicity. I hope that significant numbers of people who buy Aslan's book actually read it. Similarly, even though I have not sold many books, I hope that the copies that are out there have been read. At the same time, as Oscar Wilde said: "The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about." Hey Fox News, give me a call.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Widow of Hubert O'Quin

In the ledger book for 1843, of Philip Robin and Company, operating in Cheticamp, Cape Breton, there is an entry for the widow of Hubert O'Quin. The fact that there is an entry for a widow is not particularly noteworthy, as in any given year in the mid-1800s, among the 400 or so entries in the Company's ledgers, there are usually about a dozen widows. What stands out is the size of her account, relative to those of other widows. It is 54 pounds, 8 shillings and 4 pence, compared to the typical 2 or 3 pounds. This peculiar finding prompted two lines of questioning. First, who was this widow? And second, what was generating this level of financial activity?

Part of resolving the first issue hinged on determining that the name O'Quin was used by the Company clerks in place of Aucoin, one of the founding families of Cheticamp. Genealogical records tell us that Hubert Aucoin was born in 1791 to Anselme Aucoin and Alice Rose Chiasson. He was the second of nine children. He married Marie-Magdelene Bois, daughter of Regis Bois and Appoline Arsenault, on 25 July 1812. We are not sure when Marie-Magdelene was born, but records seem to suggest that she was twelve when she married Hubert. The couple had five children, three of whom were girls, with their fourth child, Norbert, being lost at sea on 5 April 1842. According to tradition, Hubert is supposed to have been shipwrecked off Cape North in about 1841. The ledgers tell a different story.

Tracking entries for Marie-Magdelene both before and after 1843, it turns out that she was actually widowed in 1831, her husband leaving her with a debt of about 37 pounds, and she is still on the books in 1852 -- a full two decades of seeming financial independence. Through those years, she purchases the usual supplies from the Company store: furnace oil, cloth, sugar, tobacco, rum, biscuit, tea, coffee, and various sundries. However, on occasion, she also pays for rental of a small boat, passage on a couple of voyages, and transfers amounts to various men in the community. Her sources of income include an impressive array of items: top-grade cured cod, inferior cured cod, whole cod, cod liver oil, haddock, dog fish, seal blubber and pelts, sheep and potatoes. At one point, she is even paid wages for a month's service on one of the Company's ships, the Young Witch.

Who was this woman?